War horrors to football highs: how Azerbaijan’s FK Qarabag have come back from the brink

War horrors to football highs: how Azerbaijan’s FK Qarabag have come back from the brink
By Chris Harris
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Exiled by war, Chelsea's opponents tonight have seen their fortunes take a turn for the better.


The only stress for Chelsea’s millionaire footballers tonight is seemingly how many goals they are going to thump past Azerbaijani champions FK Qarabag.

But for their opponents, widely considered the group’s whipping boys, football is perhaps the least of their worries.

For the team have been exiled from their home ground in Aghdam since the early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Aghdam, on the frontline of the conflict that saw 25,000-35,000 people killed, has been dubbed a ghost town and the Hiroshima of the Caucasus.

It will miss out on FK Qarabag’s historic Champions League bow and welcoming the likes of Atlético Madrid, Roma and Chelsea.

Instead games are played hundreds of kilometres east in the capital, Baku.

FK Qarabag’s stadium in Aghdam lies in ruins after shelling during the war, a conflict over the landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It pitted Azerbaijan against the region’s ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighbouring Armenia.

While the region is in Azerbaijan, both sides have historic claims to the region, and, while there was a truce signed in 1994, it remains a frozen conflict.

Qarabag, who have played in a new 5,200 seat stadium in Baku since 2015, made it into Group C after beating FC Copenhagen over two legs.

That victory in August saw them become the first Azerbaijani team to reach the group stages of the Champions League.

Qarabag, managed by Azerbaijani star Gurban Gurbanov, have won Azerbaijan’s top league four years on the trot.

The club’s fortunes have improved since Azersun, the country’s biggest food producer and exporter, began sponsoring them at the turn of the century.

“Azersun is deeply involved in aid projects for Nagorno-Karabakh refugees and regards the sponsorship of Agdam as “another dimension of the company’s corporate social strategy,” according to sports writer Damiano Benzoni.

The UNHCR says more than one million people were ‘displaced’ during the conflict.

Striker Vuqar Nadirov, one of the club’s highest appearance makers, was once a child refugee from the conflict.

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